Occupation: Painter, Sculptor, Installation Artist, Performance Artist, Filmmaker, Writer
Education: Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts
Movement: Pop Art, Minimalism
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist, whose oeuvre is viewed the world over as pioneering. She has belatedly been recognized as one of the leading Japanese artists of the 20th century.
Yayoi was born to a large, well-off, and conservative family that made its living from the seed business in the town of Matsumoto. She was the fourth child born to her parents, and began suffering from hallucinations and suicidal feelings from a young age. She began drawing and painting by the time she was 10, already making use of polka dots and nets in her works. She began studying at the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts, where she was given instruction in the Nihonga style of painting. It was a rather formal style, and she did not enjoy the structured thinking that it imposed on her.
Yayoi graduated in 1949, and began exhibiting almost immediately. She was prolific, and painted using watercolors, oils, and gouache on paper. Her first exhibition was held in 1952 at the First Community Center. She channeled the hallucinatory visions of her childhood into her work, and painted large surfaces, including people, floors, and walls with polka dots. She termed these paintings “infinity nets.”
Move to America
Yayoi was invited to study in Paris at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, but she decided not to as she was preparing for a solo show in Tokyo at the time, which was held in 1954, followed by another at the Mimatsu Shobo Gallery a few months later. She was always extremely productive, turning out hundreds of works in very short periods of time. She had begun making a name for herself internationally by now, and was invited by the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the “International Watercolor Exhibition: 18th Biennale” in 1955.
Yayoi had been in touch with Georgia O’Keeffe as well as Kennett Callahan, through whom she was invited to exhibit at the Dusanne Gallery in Seattle. Her family was not keen on her leaving, but she managed to get a visa. The news of her departure and upcoming exhibition immediately launched her into public light, with the mayor of Matsumoto organizing a party in her honor.
She lived in Seattle for a year, and then moved to New York. Here she became a part of the avant-garde movement, befriending Donald Judd and Eva Hesse. By the mid 1960s, she had begun making giant installations using all sorts of materials and media. However, she was not financially successful, and she worked so hard that she often had to be hospitalized.
Kusama orchestrated bizarre events in public areas, including the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. She was a good publicist of her work, creating interest in her outlandish performances where she painted her naked assistants in polka dots. She was famous for her anti-war stance and her advocacy of free love.
Yayoi staged many of her events abroad as well, and upon her return to New York began writing down her memoires. She would use this material for her writing later.
Return to Japan and Later Years
Kusama had been involved with Joseph Cornell for about a decade when he died. This prompted her to visit to Japan in 1973, and she decided to move back two years later.
She began working with ceramics, and also writing. She wrote poems, short stories, and novels, all of which created a sensation. Meanwhile, she was in poor mental health, and became a patient at the Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo. She eventually made it her permanent home, and made a studio near the hospital so she could continue working.
Yayoi continued exhibiting in the next few years, but at a far smaller scale as compared to her previous works. She spent the mid-1980s writing a fair amount. Her novel, “Angels in Cape Cod,” was published in 1990. The following year, she starred in the film “Tokyo Decadence” by Ryu Murakami.
Yayoi had a solo show in the Japanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1993, showing works from the 1950s through to the 1980s. She had more than 30 exhibitions in 1998 and, in 1999, published another novel, “New York ’69.”
A retrospective of her work was held in her hometown of Matsumoto in 2002. She continues to live in Tokyo at the Seiwa hospital.
Works Displayed at:
Art Institute of Chicago
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka
Haus der Kunst, Munich
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo